A Moral Crisis

A young woman recently asked her father, upon his retirement, if he had fulfilled his life dreams. Her father remarked that his greatest accomplishments were not his business success. Rather, it was the moral choices that he made: standing aside his wife during her terminal illness and “keeping most the 10 commandments most of the time”. Material success is one thing. Moral integrity is the substance of life.

The United States is the greatest experiment in self-governance in human history. Yet, we are in a moral crisis. We have come to view bloodshed – in movie theaters, in shopping malls and in schools – as a part of our landscape. The psychological damage alone is incalculable.

There is nothing more sanctified than human life, and there is no greater sin than bloodshed. If we are in a moral crisis, this is not a time to point fingers. In a crisis, neighbors band together in the middle of the night to squelch the fire. In a crisis, we cannot dismiss potential steps that are untested but might be part of the solution. This is a deep and complex crisis that requires an array of meaningful steps.

In a time of such crisis, the Jewish people are vital. The Torah is the bedrock of all values. On Tisha B’Av, we listen to a Jewish voice from a distant time – the voice of Jeremiah. Jeremiah asked a most basic question: Eicha, How? This expression of disbelief is an apt question for our times. As we read Eicha, we enter a dark paradoxical world, where G-d is like the enemy and mothers eat the flesh of their children.

In this dark world, Jeremiah declares, “there is no comfort”.

But if there is no comfort, of what use is Eicha? What can we gain from a lamentation which is just another bleak view of the world? In fact, Jeremiah weaves a second, subtle, strand into his words. If we follow this thread, we can find an insight that will help us to see rays of light even in the darkest of times.

The Second Strand

Over the course of Eicha, the tune changes. In the opening two chapters, Jeremiah sounds at times like a historian talking about the Churban (he’s actually a prophet!). You imagine him sitting in an armchair in a suede suite smoking his pipe, reporting on the downfall of Israel. “The city of many people, the prince among nations has become a tributary”.

Then there is a shift. In the third chapter, the historian gets out of his chair, sits on the ground and weeps. I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod, he says. Jeremiah describes his personal trials: he is besieged, the laughingstock of his people.

Within that shift, there is another change. In the opening chapters, Jeremiah describes G-d as allowing punishment to fall, but still being somewhat detached. HaShem sent fire “from on high”. Now, in chapter three, G-d sounds like a literal enemy.

“He bent his bow and made me a target for his arrow. He shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver”. If G-d was “like” an enemy in the earlier chapters, now G-d is literally “a bear, a lion in hiding”. If that is how he sees G-d, Jeremiah sounds like a prophet on the edge.

You have to wonder if he is going to leave G-d altogether. “My soul despaired of having peace, I have forgotten goodness”, he laments. These verses raise deep theological questions. How can G-d be the enemy? What is Jeremiah’s relationship with G-d? Is he really on the edge, ready to cast his Yarmulke and Tzitzit into the Mediterranean?

As we begin to ask this these questions, there is another twist. As dark as things are, suddenly in Eicha 3, 21, Jeremiah pivots to hope. He remarks there that G-d’s kindness and compassion have not ended. “They are renewed every morning, great is your faithfulness! HaShem is my portion says my soul, therefore I have hope in Him”.

These verses are challenging. On the one hand, Jeremiah perceives G-d as an enemy. At the same time, G-d is still a ray of hope that pierces through the dark sky. Let us stand back. Is G-d really the enemy? By Jeremiah’s own account, that cannot be. Jeremiah states in chapter three that G-d does not cause suffering without reason.

“Creator” of Evil

Further, an important Torah concept is that G-d does not “do” evil. Every morning in Shacharit, we paraphrase Isaiah who states that HaShem is the “G-d makes Shalom and creates evil”. The Ramchal (Daas Tevunos) explains that creation – “Briya” – is different than “doing” or “making”. While “doing” implies actual execution of a matter, “Briyah” (creation) is the development of the matter in potential.

This is touches upon the Kabbalistic idea of Tzimtzum where G-d allows his presence into the world and yet limits and contracts it at the very same time, opening up the possibility for evil to occur. G-d is not the direct instrument of bad. He just gives it the space to exist.

G-d is not an enemy. But Jeremiah is in mourning and he shares the depth of his painful perception. He expresses his feeling that G-d is standing as the enemy. Jeremiah starts like a historian. But the more he reflects on the totality of the situation, the more personal it becomes.

On the Edge

When it becomes personal, he cannot help but perceive that the pain – his pain – is connected to G-d. After all, G-d is the only true power in the world…and Jeremiah’s world is falling apart!

These feelings lead him to an abrupt edge. “G-d has walled up my roads and tangled my paths” he says. At the moment that all paths seem blocked, suddenly there is hope. “The kindnesses of G-d have not been exhausted, they renew each morning. How great is your faithfulness!” Jeremiah sees
G-d’s ceaseless kindness in daybreak, each morning.

There was once a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who became a successful real estate developer in New York after the war. During the war, he lost everything: his business, his wife, he children, his dignity. When asked how he was able to rebuild he explained that even in the most difficult times he saw the light of G-d. On the darkest of days, he looked up at the sky and thanked G-d for the breath of life.

As Jews, we feel and express the pain. But we also see and thank the Creator for every breath. So it is with Jeremiah. First there is first the broad perception of tragedy. From there, he delves into his own tragedy. At the worst of it, he feels that G-d, the power of all powers, is causing him pain. But then there is that pivot.

Jeremiah knows that G-d is the force behind the world. He wakes up and sees those rays of light cross the horizon, he realizes that G-d’s kindness renews itself.  Even as he completes the Megilla, Jeremiah continues to weave in these strands of hope, expressing a sense of hope in the second to last verse that Israel will repent and our days will be renewed.

Amidst Pain, Pivot

The perpetrators of mass murders may come from various backgrounds.  At the core, these people – consumed by hatred – are full of despair.  They are utterly detached from the goodness and the holiness of humanity.  More, they are detached from their own humanity. There is an inner emptiness that radiates out.

Jeremiah teaches us that we never become completely detached. We are always connected to G-d, and we can always find G-d’s presence in the world.  In the worst of times, we wake up in the morning and we see that sun rise.  Amidst the pain, we pivot.

And Jeremiah teaches us of another thing.  He asks “How”.  Even if the question cannot be fully answered, the verses reverberate with a message.  We may not understand the specifics of why this tragedy happened to that person.

But we see world imbued with meaning.  Jeremiah sees meaning in pain and tribulation. G-d acts in the world so that we can grow closer to our Creator. Even in mourning, the world is full of kindness and of faith.

Thread of Hope

These are the words of Jeremiah.  This thread of hope – woven into the tragedy – is a message that our world needs. It is a message that we apply to our own lives. The next time that your world feels dark, remember Jeremiah.

Wake up in the morning and see the rays of light. G-d’s kindnesses have not been exhausted. G-d’s kindnesses are never exhausted – they are new every morning, abundant is your faithfulness.